Review: 'Elemental Movement' is a Magnificent Testament to 50 Years of Grand Rapids Ballet

Grand Rapids Ballet has shown time and time again their versatility as a skillful company rooted in classical ballet that is ever willing to branch out and push the boundaries of ballet. 

This year’s season opener, “Elemental Movement”, continues that wonderful tradition with a presentation of three 25-minute contemporary ballets that capture a multitude of styles and range from elegant to dark and tragic to joyful and uplifting.

The magnificent show opener is a reprise from last year of Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s “Off the Canvas”, inspired by the red loops of Cy Twombly’s dynamic Bacchus series paintings. Set to Vivaldi juxtaposed at key moments with Adrian Klumpes’ ambient electronica, 10 dancers, like paintbrushes and paint dancing across a canvas, perform on a completely white floor surrounded by black curtains: gliding, spinning, swinging, and twirling, inverting in elegant lifts with legs akimbo, swimming through space created by other dancers’ bodies, sometimes all at once, in athletic pas de deux and pas de trois, with especially fierce port de bras from the men. The piece creates a sense of measured chaos, full of wonderful tension and beautiful, like the creative process itself.

The world premiere “Liar Lear King” is a more conceptually challenging piece. A commissioned work underwritten by the Grand Rapids Ballet New Works Fund from longtime Grand Rapids Ballet choreographer Dani Rowe in collaboration with New York City’s Satellite Collective, it’s a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” set in 1970s New York City with a cast of four. Translating the violence of that family drama from the iambic pentameter of the Bard to a pared-down language of modern balletic movement through the characters of Lear and his three daughters is ambitious to say the least. 

Coupled with often bizarre animated projections on the cyclorama of images that include a city street, robots, bird skulls, and floating cars, motorcycles, and planes, among others, the wild juxtapositions mostly distract from the dancing. However, highlights include projected images of  a lunar eclipse and an unfurling flower bud onto dancers’ bodies as well as bold and aggressive pas de deux in tandem between the sisters. The dramatic tension and madness of Lear is evident, though the story doesn’t entirely translate and the choreography largely underutilizes the dancers’ talents.

But that strange darkness gives way to the jubilant mid century romp “Elemental Brubeck.” Created for the San Francisco Ballet by iconic choreographer Bar Lubovitch in 2005, the ballet is an homage to technicolor movie musicals of the 1950s and 1960s through which the spirits of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Bob Fosse shine through.

Utterly joyful and upbeat, set to jazz by the Dave Brubeck Quartet from “Time Changes,” the pieces shift from a playful, expansive solo from James Cunningham who dances it all smiles with terrific speed and agility, to  a mesmerizingly lovely pas de deus from Adriana Wagenveld and Nathan Young with lifts and swings and a gentler quality of movement, to an incredibly athletic combo with six dancers full of lifts, high kicks, dramatic port de bras, tremendous fluid expression through the spine, seemingly floating grand jetes. The piece is an utter delight, a wonderful showcase for the dancers’ impressive skill, technique, and endurance.

A company that has endured more than 50 years has more than earned the right to stretch, play, and experiment—mostly to the delight of its audiences. Some experiments land better than others, but regardless, “Elemental Movement” is a terrific night of dance from a treasured professional company, a promising beginning to the new season and their next 50 years.

Elemental Movement
Grand Rapids Ballet
Oct. 14-16